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Until now, scholarly consensus has held that Michael Maier composed the fifty alchemical “fugues” that serve as one of the most distinctive features of his Atalanta fugiens (1618).1 Maier’s authorship of the design, text, and music of each emblem has been central to the critical reception of Atalanta fugiens since, at least, Helen Joy Sleeper’s groundbreaking study of the book in 1938, which sought an organic unity of conception both within each emblem and across the progression of the collection’s fifty emblems. This essay will detail my recent discovery that the lion’s share of the fugues in Atalanta fugiens were not composed by Michael Maier. Rather, forty of the collection’s fifty fugues had been published in 1591 in London by the composer John Farmer as Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong. Only ten of the fifty fugues formerly ascribed to Maier were likely composed by the German alchemist, whose command of the complexities of canonic composition appears not quite equal to his facility with Latin poetics and mastery of the alchemical corpus. Where and how did Maier encounter Farmer’s obscure book of canons? And why did he choose to adapt an old-fashioned and esoteric English musical idiom to his erudite emblem book? As we will explore in subsequent pages, the discovery of the true authorship of Maier’s fugues raises numerous historical and interpretive questions that have the potential to reframe how we read (and sing and hear) the alchemical music of Atalanta fugiens.

Music in Atalanta fugiens (1618)

In the opening pages of Atalanta fugiens, Maier explains how the fifty alchemical fugues support the collection’s complex and multivalent alchemical program.

Canon (Maier’s fuga) (literally “rule”)

A polyphonic musical form in which an initial melody is imitated at a specified time interval by one or more parts, either at the unison (i.e., the same pitch) or at some other pitch. A round is a type of canon, but in a round each voice, when it finishes, can start at the beginning again so that the piece can go “round and round,” as with “Frère Jacques” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Note that the Italian term fuga, as used by Maier, is not interchangeable with the modern term “fugue.” Rather, fuga, borrowed from Renaissance music theorist and composer Gioseffo Zarlino, was the preferred term for “canon” in German-speaking lands.

In order to convey the most striking representations of this race,
My Muse gives me fugues in three-fold voice.
One simple voice remains and lingers to represent the apple,
While the second voice is fleeing, and the third dutifully follows.
The Emblems present themselves to your eyes, as the fugue does to your ears,
But let your Reason strive for the arcane interpretations.2

The personification of Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the golden apples (Pomum morans) as, respectively, the leading voice, the following voice and the cantus firmus of each fugue is enlisted by Maier to evoke the three key elements of transmutational alchemy (mercury, sulfur, and salt), as well as three stages of the alchemical process (nigredo, albedo, and rubedo).3 By the early seventeenth century the alchemical corpus had thoroughly digested both an allegorical conception of the holy Trinity and a parallel Hermetic narrative that traced alchemy’s deep roots in three-fold assemblages to Hermes Trismegistus, literally “thrice-greatest” Hermes. Had Maier been aware of the identity of the cantus firmus on which John Farmer based his canons — the second phrase of the Kyrie trope Cunctipotens genitor Deus (All-powerful Creator) — he might have appreciated the resonance between the fugues as they appeared in Atalanta fugiens and the Kyrie itself, with its threefold repetition of its three statements.4

Over the course of the last century, numerous scholars have sought to explain Maier’s nuanced vision of music’s role in alchemical gnosis. Though historians have identified several points of contact between surviving writings on alchemy and early modern musical sources, the fifty fugues in Atalanta fugiens represent a unique and unparalleled confluence. The central concerns of previous scholarship on the book’s music have been the role of music in Maier’s cosmography — especially in relation to classical sources on music such as Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Boethius — and the identification of potential musical antecedents of the fugues (such as the origin of the ubiquitous cantus firmus melody, and contemporaneous theoretical writings on music by, for example, Johannes Lippius and Sethus Calvisius). Like several earlier treatments, Hildemarie Streich’s voluminous prefatory essay in Joscelyn Godwin’s 1989 translation of Atalanta fugiens offers close readings of various fugues, seeking to map specific musical features to particular emblems’ programs as well as to the trajectory of the book as a whole. In nearly all cases, scholars have stumbled over obvious inconsistencies in the quality of the collection’s fifty compositions.

Cantus Firmus (or Plainsong)

A slow-moving voice in a polyphonic musical texture, often comprised of a preexistent liturgical melody to which a composer has added newly composed voices.

As Jacques Rebotier has documented, Maier’s published corpus reveals something of a fixation on music in tripart constructions, a fact that has not eluded music historians seeking early sources on the musical triad.5 Maier’s Symbola aureae mensae (Symbols of the golden table; 1617), Jocus severus (A serious joke; 1617), and Cantilenae intellectuales (Intellectual songs; 1622) all contain passages on music, though no comprehensive scholarly treatment of music in Maier’s substantial corpus currently exists. Unlike the highly figurative Cantilenae intellectuales, in which a different poetic text is assigned to each of the three musical “voices” (acuta, media, and gravis) of each “song,” the fugues in Atalanta fugiens are notated music that could certainly have been sung.6 Maier’s instructions in the book’s full title specify that he intended the volume’s contents to “be seen, read, meditated, Understood, distinguished, Sung and Heard,” and in most (though not all) cases the layout of canonic material on the page allows for real-time performance.7 On the other hand, Maier’s association in Cantilenae intellectuales between a constellation of references to the “silence” of musica speculativa and “the (alchemical) micro-world, comprising, as it does, three natures expressed as three voices (high-pitched, medium and bass),” suggests that a sensitive reader of Atalanta fugiens might hear quite a lot in the silent contemplation of Maier’s musical notation.8

In general terms, the fugues in Atalanta fugiens support the book’s alchemical program in at least two important ways. First, the fugues provide a musical representation of Atalanta’s race with Hippomenes, the book’s master trope that Maier freights with layers of alchemical allegory.9 Second, vocal chamber music serves as a figure for the sociality Maier sought to cultivate with his alchemical emblem book. Assuming that the fugues were actually sung (an assumption I examine in more detail below), they would have required the presence of at least three singers, a quorum of participants that evokes the sociality of alchemical practices in courts, artisanal workshops, and chymical clubs. Relatedly, if Maier intended Atalanta fugiens as a showpiece of erudition designed to secure him a new patron, his inclusion of accessible but sophisticated vocal chamber music was a wise — if ultimately unsuccessful — stratagem.

The Waies Tradition and John Farmer

John Farmer (b. ca. 1570; fl. 1591–1601) is known to scholars of English Renaissance music from his numerous four-part settings in Thomas East’s psalter of 1592, his First Set of English Madrigals (1600), and his contribution to the very popular madrigal anthology dedicated to Elizabeth I, The Triumphs of Oriana (1601). Less well known is Farmer’s first publication, Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong (henceforth Sundry Waies), published “in youth” in 1591 and dedicated to Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, in whose household Farmer may have lived for several years (fig. 1).10 John Farmer, who came from a “generous family” in Leicester, matriculated at Oxford’s Merton College on March 27, 1584, aged eighteen.11 Farmer next appears as an organist and master of choristers at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, a position he began on February 1, 1595, and likely held until 1599 when he returned to London.12

Unillustrated title page of Divers & Sundry Waies.
Figure 1

Plainsong canons, or waies (as they appear in Farmer’s title), were central to the musical culture that surrounded John Farmer during the final decades of the sixteenth century. Thomas Morley’s discussion of waies in his Plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (1597) stretches to ten full pages with numerous musical examples, including waies by Morley himself, William Byrd, and Osbert Parsley.13 Morley’s treatise, dedicated to “the most excellent musitian maister William Byrde,” synthesizes much sixteenth-century musical learning from across Europe and remains a touchstone of music theory and compositional practice of the period.14 Morley, who graduated with a bachelor’s in music from Oxford in 1588, was one of a circle musicians who composed and improvised waies (and almost certainly used them in their teaching) during the 1580s and 1590s when the idiom was something of a fad among a community of Catholic composers that included Byrd, John Bull, William Bathe, Elway Bevin, and Alfonso Ferrabosco I.15

Surviving sources of waies share an impressive breadth of canonic technique, including a systematic display of canons at different temporal and musical intervals. They also rely on a surprisingly small number of plainsong cantus firmi, the most popular by far being the Miserere mihi.16

Table 1

Surviving waies sources

Farmer’s use of the second phrase of Kyrie IV (Cunctipotens genitor Deus) as the basis of all of the canons in Sundry Waies is striking because the melody was better known on the continent and had a much less conspicuous history in England (fig. 2). The particular version of the plainsong used by Farmer is a near perfect match with the Kyrie IV melody as it was first printed in the Sarum graduale during the middle of the fifteenth century.17

Kyrie IV melody in “Sarum Graduale,” 1508 A comparison of two excerpts of musical notation: Kyrie IV melody (above). Farmer’s “Sundry Waies”A comparison of two excerpts of musical notation: Farmer’s plainsong (below).
Figure 2

In her 1938 article, Sleeper identified Kyrie IV as the source of the Pomum morans melody in the fugues of Atalanta fugiens, though her assumption (shared by subsequent scholars) that Maier was their composer introduced some confusion about how that particular melody might have found its way onto the pages of Maier’s book.18 In the 1573 edition of the Istitutioni (first edition 1558), perhaps the most influential composition treatise across late sixteenth-century Europe, Gioseffo Zarlino provides a plainsong canon that uses the first phrase of Kyrie IV, and in Melopoeia (1592), the German theorist Sethus Calvisius introduced the second phrase of Kyrie IV (the same melody that appears in Farmer and subsequently in Maier) in his discussion of canon.19 Whether Maier initially encountered Kyrie IV in Zarlino or in Calvisius (who is widely credited with transmitting Zarlino’s ideas to German lands), or perhaps somewhere else, remains a matter of speculation. As Giuseppe Gerbino has documented, there was some continental interest during the early seventeenth century in plainsong canon, which Gerbino refers to, following Zarlino, as contrappunto obbligato.20 For our purposes, though, given that Maier chose to appropriate an English composer’s waies built on an English variant of Kyrie IV, I will focus my discussion on waies in the English context.21

The popularity of waies among English musicians during the late sixteenth century has remained something of a mystery. A miniature form seemingly designed to showcase abstruse contrapuntal machinations, waies proliferated at a moment when the text-driven expressivity and larger forms of the seconda prattica were ascendant in England. With a few notable exceptions, forthright, largely homophonic psalm and hymn settings were displacing centuries of complex polyphony as the musical vehicle for the (now Protestant) liturgy. Waies typically feature two parts in canon accompanied by (or accompanying) a liturgical chant excerpt used as a pfundnote cantus firmus, a slow-moving melody in long notes of unvarying length.

The tradition of sacralizing a liturgical melody by garlanding it with polyphonic accompaniment had been central to European composition for hundreds of years. However, the wholesale, violent reorganization of the liturgy by English Reformers meant that the melodies and associated Latin texts of the Sarum Rite — the dominant rite in Southern England prior to the Reformation — were no longer in common use. The appearance of Sarum chant melodies in waies published during some of the most intensely anti-Catholic years of Elizabeth I’s reign suggests that their use as cantus firmi was more than incidental. At the very least, the use of such melodies as the Miserere mihi and Cunctipotens genitor Deus by waies composers gestured to an earlier musical era when musical canon was strongly associated with ritual symbolism, a tradition that persisted in various forms through at least the early seventeenth century.22 However, the use of Sarum melodies as cantus firmi in the waies corpus suggests that composers of waies were interested not just in the tradition of polyphony as a ritual enhancement of the musical Word, as expressed in now-outlawed Sarum chant melodies, but also in the particular Catholic associations of the melodies themselves. Yet even if we accept the notion that waies composition was partly motivated by an attraction to Sarum chant, myriad questions remain. Why were these collections published? Who was their intended audience, and how did their authors envision their use? And how and why was the Lutheran Maier drawn to the waies idiom as a source for the music in Atalanta fugiens?

The contrapuntal virtuosity that characterizes the waies corpus, with its encyclopedic treatments of canonic possibility, suggests that the display of compositional skill was at least a factor in the circulation and publication of waies.23 Yet the most ostentatious feature of the waies corpus — its stubborn reliance on bits of plainchant associated with a forbidden ritual practice — is incidental to its displays of compositional complexity. After all, composers eager to display contrapuntal cunning could just as easily have composed canons not on a plainsong, or could have chosen popular melodies or scalar patterns as the basis of their waies. Eamon Duffy famously documented the crisis of the sudden proscription of familiar rites following several waves of violent religious reform, the extent to which “the Reformation was a stripping away of familiar and beloved observances, the destruction of a vast and resonant world of symbols.”24 Despite strenuous official efforts to purge the country of Catholic ritual artefacts — missals, books of hours, vestments, rood screens, “idolatrous” images, and so forth — a surprising number of such ritual items were saved by enterprising clergy and parishioners. Many such items, as Duffy chronicles, either retained their ritual significance as part of the surreptitious and piecemeal practice of those who resisted Reformers’ efforts, or they were stripped of some or all of their former ritual power to become incorporated into the new structures of belief and practice. One such ritual vestige of the old religion to survive the Reformation in various, not altogether unrecognizable forms was a selection of plainchant melodies of the Sarum Rite, a formerly enormous corpus that had served as the core of the musical liturgy for centuries.25 Stripped of their incriminating Latin texts, these melodies appear frequently in Elizabethan music, often in self-consciously antiquated musical forms, such as the In nomine for ensembles of viols, that harken back to a sacralizing pre-Reformation musical sensibility. It is perhaps no coincidence that a preponderance of the Elizabethan polyphony that makes use of plainchant melodies (in both their texted and untexted forms) was composed by musicians who had chosen to maintain ties — often at great personal and professional expense — to the old religion. The waies idiom emerged out of a community of just such composers, musicians who managed — using varied strategies and with varying degrees of success — to preserve professional identities as composers in a virulently anti-Catholic culture while creating music that gestured in a range of ways towards their confessional allegiance.

Considered as an adjunct to the education of choristers, waies publications — including Farmer’s Sundry Waies — would have offered flexible teaching materials and variously coded gestures to venerated musical and liturgical traditions that had only been papered over by the new psalters and prayer book. There is no evidence that Farmer harbored Catholic sympathies, yet as a musician with many connections to the liturgy he would have been aware of the persistent ritual and musical absences of the new official religion as well as, most likely, the extent to which proscribed practices lay everywhere beneath the surface.26 Singing Farmer’s waies, for example, would have quickly lodged in the memory the excerpt of the Cunctipotens genitor Deus chant melody on which Farmer based his canons and that appears at the top of each page of Sundry Waies. Singing and memorizing chant had been the principal occupation of choristers for centuries, and though Farmer’s collection is purportedly focused on canonic composition, the fact is that accessing its lessons requires the repetition and memorization of a Sarum chant melody that would have offered Elizabethan musicians multiple registers of continuity with the past.

That the waies corpus may have been a vehicle for educating choristers about how to sing — as opposed to how to compose — liturgical polyphony is further suggested by the nearly complete absence in any treatise (aside from Morley’s) of the sort of nuts-and-bolts compositional strategies that we see in, for example, Zarlino’s Istitutioni. Virtually all the known composers of waies served as masters of choristers (Farmer held such a position in Ireland after he graduated from Oxford and published Sundry Waies), whose responsibilities included training students to sing the high-pitched “treble” and “mean” vocal parts essential to the musical liturgy. A master of choristers needed musical exercises to train his charges, exercises that could serve the mix of vocal ranges and skill levels possessed by a motley group of choristers ranging in age from six or seven years old to the late teenage years.

Farmer’s collection of canons would have offered a valuable set of exercises in singing and playing notated polyphony as well as graded models for aspiring composers. Sundry Waies is organized by clef grouping (fig. 3), providing a collection of pieces that fairly evenly distribute the plainsong and the leading and following canonic voices through all possible vocal and instrumental ranges. Of the collection’s forty canons, there are examples that would comfortably fit the vocal ranges of any possible combination of three singers, from the highest treble to the lowest bass possessed by an older boy who had not yet found a place as an adult singing man. Alternately, students playing any combination of the three traditional sizes of viol could have found a canon to practice reading different clefs and performing simple polyphony together.27 In one scenario, the teacher might have used the leading voice of a particular waie to model solmization and style while students performed the following voice and supported the proceedings with the cantus firmus. Alternatively, two advanced students or groups of students might have sung the canonic voices while the teacher reinforced good rhythm and intonation through his performance of the accompanying plainsong. Farmer’s Sundry Waies could also have served as a veritable encyclopedia of canonic techniques for advanced students learning to compose imitative polyphony or improvise counterpoint against a cantus firmus. Waies’ conventional absence of texts would have facilitated the use of the hexachordal syllables — ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la — by young singers developing their solmization skills. Music of known pedagogical intent from the same period and publisher features both texted and untexted exercises in a similar bid for maximal flexibility.28

Counterpoint (adj. contrapuntal)

A compositional technique forming the basis of Western musical practice in which multiple voices are composed so as to control the consonance and dissonance of the intervals between their individual constituent notes.


A musical texture characterized by multiple, simultaneous, independent musical voices.

Waies 1–18A dual chart of clef groupings of Farmer's Sundry waies that resembles a periodic table of elements, showing Waies 1-18 (above). Waies 19–40A dual chart of clef groupings of Farmer's Sundry waies that resembles a periodic table of elements, showing Waies 19-40 (below).
Figure 3

The surviving waies corpus (see table 1) testifies to a brief but intense fascination with this esoteric idiom. The purported educational value of waies as an aid to teaching composition and performance does not seem adequate to explain the seemingly obsessive generation of dozens or hundreds of short canons based on just a few short snippets of ancient plainsong. The Catholic sympathies of nearly all the known composers of waies (Farmer notwithstanding), as well as the conspicuous choice of cantus firmi drawn from a proscribed rite, suggest that the idiom may have served retrospective or symbolic — alongside musical — purposes to its small community of enthusiasts. The combinatory fervor evident in what appear to have been somewhat systematic attempts to present all the possible canons against a given cantus firmus may have been an English take on similarly ideologically charged combinatory efforts by various Jesuit thinkers (among them Cristoph Clavius and, later, Athanasius Kircher) on the continent.29 What is certainly true is that the English waies corpus brought people together to sing, play, or compose — to learn, practice, or worship — in moments of collaborative musical intimacy.

Maier’s Adaptation of Farmer’s Waies

The presentation of Farmer’s waies in Atalanta fugiens is legible as imitation, the strategic concealing and revealing of different sources to different readers, all in the context of the broader problem of publishing alchemical secrets while reserving core truths for the initiated reader. Maier’s close connection to Jacobean England — his visits to the court during 1611–16, his publication in London of the Arcana arcanissima (Most secret secrets; 1614), the silent transmission of an English musical form in Atalanta fugiens, and so forth — contributes to an emerging reevaluation of the influence of English culture on the continent during the first decades of the seventeenth century. Karin Figala and Ulrich Neumann have identified several notable Englishmen to whom Maier wrote personal dedications in surviving copies of the Arcana arcanissima. One, Sir William Paddy (1554–1634), personal physician to James I, is of interest as the potential vector of Farmer’s Sundry Waies to Maier. Paddy was an amateur musician associated throughout his life with Oxford, having graduated from St. John’s College and later leaving his estate, including an organ and £1,800 “for the improvement of the choir,” to St. John’s.30 While John Farmer had matriculated to Merton College, a few blocks away, William Bathe, a Catholic composer of waies who is quoted by Maier in the introduction to Atalanta fugiens, had been a student at St. John’s during the 1580s and would have likely known both Farmer and Paddy. It is also possible that Maier encountered Farmer’s Sundry Waies on the continent; dances by Farmer appear in Thomas Simpson’s Opusculum neuwer Pavanen, published in Heidelberg in 1610, so the composer was not entirely unknown in Maier’s Germany.

However Maier got his hands on Farmer’s collection of waies, he left a few breadcrumbs in Atalanta fugiens that hint at the depth of his engagement with the English waies tradition. The book’s preface reveals unmistakable references both to Farmer’s preface in Sundry Waies and to the epigraph and preface (“To the Reader”) from William Bathe’s waies collection A briefe introduction to the skill of song (c. 1596). Additionally, more than one of Maier’s emblems (6 and 42, for example) may slyly gesture towards his surreptitious repurposing of Farmer’s canons.31

Compare emblems

  • Emblem 6 image thumbnail
  • Emblem 42 image thumbnail
Farmer collection addAdd to emblem collections

A careful reading of Farmer’s prefatory essay “Philomusicis” alongside Maier’s praefatio reveals multiple points of contact, from the parallel treatment — in roughly the same order — of the themes of divine omniscience and the hierarchy of knowledge as represented by the seven liberal arts, to specific citations and turns of phrase. Though some similarities are no doubt due to both authors’ employment of a richly conventional tradition of prefatory address, specific references in both prefaces to the story of Themistocles, for example, and his famed inability to play the lyre appear too specific to be easily explained by coincidence or convention. This is true also of both Farmer’s and Maier’s distinctive rhetoric asserting that their respective arts (Farmer’s music and Maier’s chymistry) are “not the last, if not the first” (Farmer) or “not the meanest, but next to . . . divine things, the principal and most precious of all” (Maier) in the hierarchy of knowledge.32

Table 2
Maier Atalanta fugiens Farmer Sundry Waies
1 View in digital edition
2 View in digital edition 2
3 View in digital edition
4 View in digital edition 23
5 View in digital edition
6 View in digital edition 25
7 View in digital edition
8 View in digital edition 27
9 View in digital edition
10 View in digital edition 15
11 View in digital edition
12 View in digital edition 14
13 View in digital edition
14 View in digital edition 18
15 View in digital edition
16 View in digital edition 17
17 View in digital edition
18 View in digital edition 11
19 View in digital edition
20 View in digital edition 20
21 View in digital edition 1
22 View in digital edition 3
23 View in digital edition 4
24 View in digital edition 5
25 View in digital edition 6
26 View in digital edition 7
27 View in digital edition 8
28 View in digital edition 9
29 View in digital edition 10
30 View in digital edition 12
31 View in digital edition 16
32 View in digital edition 22
33 View in digital edition 24
34 View in digital edition 26
35 View in digital edition 28
36 View in digital edition 29
37 View in digital edition 30
38 View in digital edition 31
39 View in digital edition 32
40 View in digital edition 33
41 View in digital edition 21
42 View in digital edition 19a
43 View in digital edition 19b
44 View in digital edition 13
45 View in digital edition 35
46 View in digital edition 38
47 View in digital edition 39
48 View in digital edition 36
49 View in digital edition 37
50 View in digital edition 34

More surprising is Maier’s quotation of William Bathe’s treatise on waies, the aforementioned Briefe introduction, written while the Irish Catholic Bathe was a student at Oxford during the mid-1580s alongside Morley and Farmer. The title page of Bathe’s Briefe introduction features an epigram ascribed to “Fabius” — presumably Marcus Fabius Quintilianus — whose writings on rhetoric and music were a standard part of an English gentleman’s education in the liberal arts. Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (Institutes of oratory), in fact, is a likely source of the story about Themistocles cited by Farmer and Maier. Bathe’s epigram, “Music is an honest and agreeable recreation, most worthy of liberal and learned persons,” does not appear in any of Quintilian’s known writings, nor was I able to find it in a fairly exhaustive search of classical sources on music known in England during the sixteenth century.33 Where it does appear, however, similarly (and perhaps erroneously) ascribed to “Fabius,” is in Maier’s praefatio to Atalanta fugiens, where it concludes Maier’s discussion of music as a key element in the book’s multi-modal conception. It would appear, therefore, that Maier was familiar not just with Farmer’s collection of waies but also with Bathe’s, suggesting that Maier’s selection of Farmer’s canons was an informed and considered choice.34 One extraordinary feature of Bathe’s Briefe introduction is the inclusion of a tabular algorithm for the composition of waies — a sort of paint-by-number technique for composing canons “to the plainsong.” It is possible that Maier used Bathe’s table to help him compose the ten fugues he likely contributed to Atalanta fugiens, though it would be difficult to know for certain. It is more probable that Maier closely (though imperfectly) imitated Farmer’s examples, which were likely not composed with the aid of Bathe’s algorithm.35

The paradigmatic alterations Maier made to Farmer’s canons can be expressed quite simply: Maier transposed all of Farmer’s canons up a fourth, set to them the Latin epigrams that appear beneath as part of each emblem, and scrambled the order in which Farmer had presented his canons in Sundry Waies (see table 2).36 In order to make the Latin words fit music for which they weren’t initially conceived, Maier freely broke long notes into shorter values, particularly the semibreves that comprise the cantus firmus, or Pomum morans in his Atalantan conception of the pieces. In all cases, only the first of the three verses of each epigram underlays the music, which is printed — like Farmer’s canons — in choir-book format on one page.

In his Melopoeia of 1592, the German music theorist and astronomer Calvisius articulated a rationale for adding text to textless music that calls to mind Maier’s exhortation to his readers that “the Emblems present themselves to your eyes, as the fugue does to your ears, / But let your Reason strive for the arcane interpretations.” Calvisius writes,

Although a bare [textless] harmony such as is found in instrumental music, when intelligently and skillfully wrought by an artist, may reach men’s minds by virtue of its numbers and proportions and exert great power in arousing the affections, nevertheless, if one adds a human voice which at the same time sings a significant idea portrayed in harmonic numbers, the melody will become much more elevated, more welcome both to the ears and to the mind, because of the twofold delight which the harmony and the noble idea will engender.37

Maier was a gifted epigrammatist and perhaps couldn’t resist “elevating” Farmer’s enticingly “bare harmony” with the addition of “noble ideas.”

For those readers eager to identify connections among the elements of a given emblem (the fugue, engraving, epigram, and discursus), comparing Farmer’s table of contents with Maier’s may suggest which fugues are most likely to reward close reading. Those series of emblems in which Maier scrambled Farmer’s order (in order to align salient musical features with related themes in the accompanying engraving, epigram, or discursus) are likely richer in intra-emblematic connections than the series in which Maier simply reproduced Farmer’s canons in their original order.

For example, for Emblems 22–29 and 35–40, Maier used Farmer’s canons in the same order he encountered them in Farmer’s collection. In contrast, Maier carefully selected the most complex and evocative of Farmer’s canons for his final ten fugues. It is in these final ten fugues that musical details of a particular fugue can most easily be interpreted to manifest the overarching themes of the emblem to which it belongs.

Emblem 46, for example, titled “Two Eagles come together, one from the East, the other from the West,” features an engraving of Jupiter holding an eagle in each hand and is accompanied by this epigram (fig. 4)

Great Jove two Eagles out of Delphi sent
To the East and Western parts, for this intent,
That he the middle of the earth might find;
Which, there returning, well resolved his mind.
But those two Eagles are two stones, which haste
One from the East, the other from the West.38

The second page of emblem 46 from Atalanta fugiens shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a bearded man draped in cloth wearing a crown, understood as Jove, is holding in each hand an eagle with spread wings on a small island in the middle of a lake.
Figure 4 add add Add to Collection

Maier chose Farmer’s canon 38, a retrograde canon in which the canonic voices proceed, in Farmer’s words, “backward and forward, the one part to begin at the beginning and so [to] the ende, and the other part to begin at the ende, and so forward to the beginning, the plainsong likewise, is to be sung forward and backward.” The image of two eagles flying in opposite directions and then returning is echoed in (or echoes) a performance of the fugue, in which the two canonic parts read the same line from opposite directions and the cantus firmus is “out of Delphi sent” and then returns to its starting point.

The first twenty fugues present another snapshot of Maier’s process of adapting Farmer’s canons to Atalanta fugiens. Of the first twenty fugues, the odd-numbered ones do not appear in Farmer’s Sundry Waies. Circumstantial evidence points to Maier as the composer of these pieces, which imitate Farmer’s canons while exhibiting substantially less contrapuntal facility. A close look at the odd-numbered Fugues 1–19 reveals myriad contrapuntal errors of numerous sorts. Fugue 1, the opening piece of the collection, for example, is rife with infelicities that include parallel perfect intervals, improperly handled dissonances, and melodic tritones. In their theoretical writings on the composition of waies back in England, both Morley and Bathe described a method that entails first composing a canon in whole notes against the cantus firmus and then introducing diminutions in the canonic voices (fig. 5).39

Musical notation from a manuscript page depicting Morley’s plaine and divided waie.
Figure 5

Each of these two phases of the composition of waies entails its own set of skills to master and invites its own distinctive errors. The fugues that originated as Farmer’s canons exhibit orthodox treatment of consonance and dissonance and inventive diminutions to create frequent suspensions, syncopations, and melodic interest through the use of varying rhythmic values. The fugues I ascribe to Maier, on the other hand, include frequent contrapuntal errors that originate at the structural, canonic level (fig. 6) as well as those introduced in the diminutions.40 The fugues by Maier also reveal significant confusion about the use of musica ficta, the chromatic alteration of melody in response to contrapuntal exigencies that was an essential skill for literate musicians. Fugues 5, 9, and 11, for example, present numerous errors that are representative of Maier’s evident confusion about the correct application of ficta.

An excerpt of modernized musical notation of fugue 5 from Atalanta fugiens with annotations in red.
Figure 6

Existing scholarship on the music in Atalanta fugiens has had to account for the curious inconsistency of quality evident in the fugues. It is now clear the forty fugues that originated as canons by John Farmer meet the period’s professional standards of composition, while the remaining ten fugues are evidently the work of an ambitious amateur attempting to imitate Farmer’s well-wrought models. The only surviving composition that can (somewhat) dependably be ascribed to Maier is a waie, featuring four canonic voices over a repeating cantus firmus, that was included in a Christmas greeting presented to James I in 1611 while Maier was in England acting as an ambassador for Frederick, Elector Palatine. Adam McLean, who discovered the letter in the Scottish Records Office, noted that Maier’s Christmas greeting included a Rosicrucian-themed illustration paired with a Latin poem and a piece of music, a combination that prefigures the emblems in Atalanta fugiens. Like the fugues that would appear nearly a decade later, each voice of Maier’s canon for King James is matched to a character: in this case, the four archangels and two shepherds described elsewhere in the letter are designated to sing the four canonic voices and the cantus firmus, respectively. Also like the fugues not by Farmer in Atalanta fugiens, Maier’s Christmas canon is rife with contrapuntal infelicities including unprepared dissonances, melodic tritones, parallel fourths in exposed voices, and awkward voice leading. While it is certainly possible that a different amateur composer completed the ten fugues in Atalanta fugiens not composed by Farmer, the familiarity of the types of errors and Maier’s evident interest in composing waies nearly a decade before the publication of his alchemical emblem book strongly suggest that the poorly executed examples in Atalanta fugiens were composed by Maier himself.

The second page of emblem 6 from Atalanta fugiens shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a beardless man in early modern clothing is sowing gold coins from a bowl into a plowed field.
Figure 7

Emblem 6, “Sow your gold in the white foliated earth,” features an engraving depicting a farmer sowing gold coins in a freshly tilled field (fig. 7), an alchemical adaptation of a conventional image that would be familiar to early modern readers as the "parable of the sower."41 The book's engraver, Matthäus Merian, would return to this iconography later in his career with the plate for his illustrated bible. The image in Emblem 6, however, appears to owe a debt to the image by the Weirix family of engravers that appeared in devotional publications by the Jesuit Jerome Nadal from the 1580s. The Weirix image (fig. 8) features similarities in the posture and costume of the "farmer," as well as compositional resonances (such as the placement of the tree at the left of the frame and the centrally located church steeple) that likely cannot be explained solely by convention.

An etching, titled The Parable of the Sower, that depicts a farmer tossing seeds from a sack over his shoulder as he walks across rows of plowed farmland. In the distance, past a town beside a river, a plume of smoke curls toward the sky.
Figure 8

To a reader aware of Maier’s unacknowledged musical debt and sensitive to the technique of dispertio informatio — the widespread strategy among alchemical writers of concealing key information by strategically dispersing it throughout a work or corpus — an emblem featuring a “farmer” invites additional scrutiny.42 Do the field’s furrows look a bit like the lines on a musical staff, and do the gold coins sown by the farmer evoke the sequences of whole notes of a plainsong? Perhaps. Emblem 6 treats the densely intertwined symbology of agriculture and alchemy, a tradition with no shortage of precedent in the alchemical corpus that Maier expounds upon in the discursus. Until, that is, the last several lines, in which Maier veers unexpectedly away from an erudite meditation on how metals “grow” in the earth to a seemingly unrelated discussion of music.

For if Music adorned [Achilles], why may it not also make this our work more complete and acceptable: For the Angels sing (as the sacred scriptures attest), the heavens sing, as Pythagoras affirms, and, as the Psalmist says, declare the glory of God, the Muses and Apollo sing, as the Poets, men even infants sing, birds sing, Sheep and geese sing in musical instruments, if therefore we also sing, there is reason for it.43

It seems unlikely that Maier expected his readers to draw a connection between Emblem 6 and an English composer little known in Germany. Yet his abrupt peroration, in which he furnishes an answer to one of the book’s most persistent questions (“Why music?”) to conclude an otherwise entirely unmusical emblem, might give a reader pause to consider Maier’s metacommentary on his own work as an editor and compiler.

Though the printed fugues of Atalanta fugiens tell a story about Maier’s appropriation of an esoteric musical idiom to his alchemical program, it’s important to remember that Maier would likely have encountered Farmer’s waies as sounding music, as an audible trace of an interaction among three musicians crowded around a copy of Sundry Waies. As they were printed by East, in a choir-book format featuring the plainsong across the top of the page with each of the canonic voices printed start to finish beneath it, Farmer’s canons require one musician per part (three in total) to perform. They would be extremely difficult for even the most skilled keyboard player to read at sight, and harder still for a musician to “audiate” — to hear in his or her head — given how they appear on the page.44 By way of contrast, consider Morley’s waies (fig. 5), printed in score in his Plaine and easie introduction in order to facilitate the study and performance of all three parts by one student.45 The music is not the notation — Farmer’s waies are not (just) the three lines of music on each page of his treatise or the abstract set of canonic relationships the notation specifies; rather, they are brief scripted encounters that bring three individual musicians into a focused proximity, both physical (as they crowd around the book) and musical (through imitation and a preponderance of closely voiced intervals). Maier almost certainly would have discovered Farmer’s waies through his performance of them with — presumably — two friends in an English music room, an experience he may have sought to offer to his readership in Atalanta fugiens.

The several centuries that separate modern scholarship from Maier and his readers have also seen a shift away from oral performance — reading or singing aloud — towards silent, individual contemplation of the written word or note. Maier’s poetics in the Cantilenae intellectuals about silence as “music, audible only to philosophers,” notwithstanding, the fugues in Atalanta fugiens were likely conceived of primarily as sounding things, as short, ritual enactments of the same underlying universal order that the book’s chymistry was meant to reveal.46 Like the clockwork planetaria that Rudolf II collected in Prague castle (in 1609 Maier entered Rudolf’s court as physician and counselor), the fugues offer the most to the senses when they are in motion, when the harmonious relationships they dramatize play out in real time. As Maier states in the praefatio to Atalanta fugiens, “Nothing is said to be in the understanding, which had not admission by some sense, the understanding of a man new born being supposed as a smooth table, wherein nothing is as yet written, but anything may be written by the help of sense, as a styl[us].”47 The “sound” of the fugues, as well as the accompanying sensory intensity of singing imitative polyphony as three characters in an Ovidian drama, may well have been a “stylus” with which Maier sought to inscribe the “most abstruse Chymical things, and lastly most rare Musical things to be enucleated by the understanding” on his readers’ intellects.48

Farmer’s waies, though designed to serve in a very different musical milieu — the small-group pedagogy of choristers in what remained of the choral institutions under Elizabeth I — were accessible only through performance by multiple musicians. It may have been the close choreography of Farmer’s polyphony — its capacity to stage a harmonious, intimate interaction among musical bodies — as much as its contrapuntal subtlety that drew Maier to Farmer’s canons. Though not Catholic, Farmer was close enough to the dispossessed community of Catholic musicians who created the waies idiom to have absorbed some of its ritual element — the quasi-liturgical unfolding of imitative lines against a hypnotic, inexorable bit of plainchant. This ritual intensity may be part of what Maier sought to import into Atalanta fugiens, transforming it to serve the book’s ludic, quasi-mystical ends. The idea that Maier was drawn to the particular ritual intensity of waies (that he had perhaps experienced in England when he first sang or played them) also helps explain the sometimes seemingly random distribution of Farmer’s compositions in Atalanta fugiens. For if Maier included fugues in his alchemical emblem book as a way of intensifying the sensory and social dimensions of reading through the ritual intimacy of polyphonic music making, the exact mapping of a given fugue to the other elements of the emblem becomes a subsidiary consideration.

Interpretive Vistas

The knowledge that eighty percent of the fugues in Atalanta fugiens were conscripted from a publication with a radically different program — that of training English choristers in the performance and composition of counterpoint and promulgating a distinctively English retrospective musical mysticism — offers an opportunity to reorient the music with regard to its relationships to the book’s other elements. It also suggests critical vistas that include both the intratextuality of each emblem’s different elements and the myriad relationships between Maier’s erudite multimedia project and the rich circulation of sources and ideas across national and religious borders.

At stake in evaluating Maier’s musical abilities has been a determination of the appropriate interpretive and critical responses to the multimedia emblems of Atalanta fugiens. Scholars (including Sleeper, Streich, and Manfred Kelkel) who have been willing to overlook the curious and diverse errors that populate the fugues have pursued a close reading of canonic procedure to elucidate the emblems’ alchemical programs. Such work assumes — incorrectly, as we now know — that specific compositional choices are mappable to the textual and visual details of a given emblem’s accompanying elements (the epigram, engraving, and discursus).49 Latent in this approach is a prioritizing of the textual and visual elements — the notion that the “essence” of a given emblem lies primarily in the epigram and discursus and that the fugue, like the accompanying engraving, serves to gloss and enrich it. The question of whether the fugues were intended to be actually sung is circumscribed by this issue of priority: the meanings that might emerge from an act of silent contemplation or amidst the messy exigencies of crowding around the small book to sing are inevitably tied to beliefs about how the music drives or is driven by the meanings of an emblem’s other elements.

The modern embrace of Atalanta fugiens as a multimedia text has been complicated by uncertainties about how involved Maier was in the conception and realization of the engravings and by persistent doubts about his ability as composer, to say nothing of the complexity and opacity of the book’s overarching alchemical program. An alternative critical project might be to observe how the book’s identity as a multimedia text depends as much on the competition that emerges among its visual, textual, musical, and chymical elements. The priorities of epigrammatic poetry, engraving, canonic counterpoint, and experimental chemistry cannot always be aligned, and many of the ludic qualities of Maier’s unique collection of emblems might be seen as epiphonema of the interpretive “noise” emitted by this competition. Such a reading would be attentive to the idiomatic — and idiosyncratic — priorities of each separate element before attempting to domesticate their details to a shared program or explain away the details that don’t seem to fit.

Recovering Maier’s intentions for how the various elements of each emblem combine to reveal the “treasures here enclosed” may be beyond the reach of modern criticism, and attempting such a recovery may be beside the point.50 Maier invited his readers, I believe, to seek their own meanings amid the rich and complex musical, textual, visual, and chymical interpretations that emerge with the thoughtful engagement of each element within each emblem and across the collection as a whole. Such engagement can take many forms, of course, from silent and solitary reading to convivial — perhaps even raucous — group play. In this context, Maier’s sly inclusion of Farmer’s canons cannot but underline the shared legacy of music and alchemy as social and embodied practices.


  • Figure 1
    John Farmer, title page, Divers & Sundry Waies (1591).
  • Figure 2
    Comparison of Kyrie IV melody and Farmer’s plainsong.
  • Figure 3
    Farmer’s clef grouping.
  • Figure 4
    Emblem 46, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 5
    Morley’s plaine and divided waie.
  • Figure 6
    Parallel octaves in Fugue 5, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 7
    Emblem 6, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 8
    “The Parable of the Sower,” from Jerome Nadal's Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1583).

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Ludwig, Loren. “John Farmer’s Sundry Waies: The English Origin of Michael Maier’s ‘Alchemical Fugues.’” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Loren Ludwig studied viola da gamba at Oberlin Conservatory and holds a PhD in critical and comparative studies in music from the University of Virginia. He has taught at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, Grinnell College, and the New Zealand School of Music. As a viol player, Loren performs widely as a soloist and chamber musician. He is a cofounder of the critically acclaimed ensembles LeStrange Viols and ACRONYM. Current projects investigate the influences of hermetic and Catholic esotericism in the history of early modern music theory and the confluence of music and alchemy in seventeenth-century alchemical works by Michael Maier.

Michael Maier and Mythoalchemy by Peter J. Forshaw
Learned Failure and the Untutored Mind by Richard J. Oosterhoff
Emblem collections

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